Actors over athletes

Beneath the Cultural Olympiad, the Criterion theatre will show the funny side of the Olympics in two new plays.

The build-up to the sport explosion that looms over London is heightening, but the Olympics bring more than just inspiration to exercise in logo-coated vests. Since 2008 London has borne witness to the “Cultural Olympiad”, which triangulates various expressions of culture in the form of theatre productions, festivals and workshops. The Olympiad boasts more than 8 300 past workshops with a total attendance of 169 000 people, and over 16 million people have seen an offical London 2012 cultural performance. But, slightly outside the official team's monopoly on cultural events, London holds a number of theatrical sparks beneath the Olympic radar.

Coinciding with the Olympic dates, the Criterion Theatre in Piccadilly Circus will be holding a programme titled Playing the Games. The series of events is technically part of the Olympiad in the London 2012 Festival, but being London's only independent West End theatre and with a humble capacity of 588, it falls slightly under the array of official events. Playing the Games holds an opportunity to see both up-and-coming and well-established talents in the form of comedians, musicians, playwrights and Olympians. With the aim to bring together sport and culture, encompassing the attempts of the London 2012 Olympics itself, the programme holds two new Olympic-related plays. Taking Part by Adam Brace strings together all the relevant spirits of self-belief and opportunism, and not excluding the timely Olympic tradition of things going wrong. The story follows a Congolese security guard training as an Olympic swimmer to compete in the London Games. His Russian coach doesn't have much hope for him, but unlike the audience watching real underdogs competing in the real Games, the audience will support his determination and optimism to the end. Alternatively, for the less sporty types, the Criterion will also be showing Serge Cartwright's After the Party. This follows Sean and Ray, two 30-ish-year-old former DJs trying to shove their feet back in the heavy doors of the music industry. With the world flocking around their Statford homes for London 2012 they have their last chance at a musical career, and the audience has yet another opportunity for Olympic merriment.

If your cultural aim this summer is to avoid the Olympic theme altogether, Playing the Games will also hold performances aimed at the less athletic audience, or at those poor Londoners afflicted with Olympic-bitterness. The renowned and skilled arts group, Paper Cinema, will be showing for one day only a version of Homer's the Oddysey using hand-drawn paper puppets. In what the Times has called “ingeniously effective”, Paper Cinema will use their skilled puppet masters and riveting live musicians to bring cardboard cut-outs to life. For a more informal theatrical experience, the Criterion is also holding a number of lunchtime interviews by such comedy personalities as Stephen Fry and Alan Davies, and sporting inspirations as Edwin Moses and Haile Gebrselassie.

The Criterion will not be the only theatre to bring drama to the Olympics. At Headlong, Citizens Theatre and Watford Palace Theatre, a new opportunity to see the classic Euripides tragedy Medea will come to light. Mike Bartlett has audaciously written a modern version in association with the Warwick Arts Centre that makes the ancient drama even more horrifying in contemporary context. Or, on the lighter side, you could see a play about a man in labour. Birthday by Joe Penhall at the Royal Court Theatre tells a more comic story about a world with artificial wombs and truly equal partnership in childbirth. Arriving into the world kicking and screaming, Birthday will be showing throughout the summer and shows the wide variety of entertainment available to London in place of sweaty Olympic crowds.

Obi Abili plays an amateur Congolese Olympic swimmer in a new production at the Criterion theatre. Photograph: Bill Knight
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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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